Climbing the Pichincha Volcano

In 2007, Quito, Ecuador became my home for four months while studying abroad.  As a Spanish Studies major, I really needed to live abroad for a decent chunk of time in order to get my language skills to near fluency, so I chose a program in Microfinance in Ecuador.  I lived with an amazing family, became good friends with my fellow students, and completed an internship with a microfinancial institution named Codesarrollo Ltda.  Ecuador is an incredible place to visit, and an even more incredible place to live.

Quito is the large, sprawling urban center of northern Ecuador.  It may not have much for skyscrapers, but the city is beautiful, sprawling across a rolling landscape with a stunning backdrop of Andes mountains.  The western skyline of Quito is dominated by a large, active volcano named Pichincha.  It last erupted in 1999, and before that hadn't erupted for centuries, so it is open to the public as a an attraction to tourists and hikers by way of the Teleférico.  The Teleférico is a gondola-type structure that runs from the base of the mountain up to the lower summit of Pichincha, commonly known as Guagua ("baby" in Quechua, the old Andean language) Pichincha.  Just riding up the Teleférico is an adventure in itself, with unbeatable views of the city and the Andes mountains that cradle the city.
Going up!
Now, conquering the Teleférico was one of the first to-do list items upon arrival in Quito.  During the first week, a group of us students made plans to take a day trip to the top of the Teleférico to have lunch.  The views are incredible!  Once we got to the top, we began to walk around and take photos, but like most tourists, we all began to experience altitude sickness.  Feeling dizzy and short of breath, Alica, Emily, Carol, Jules, Michael (Migs) and I sat down to lunch at a restaurant, which luckily served Coca tea, a natural remedy that combats the effects of altitude sickness.  A little freaky, considering coca leaves are used for making cocaine, but if its good enough for the locals, we figured it was good enough for us.  After a few cups, we had hoped to feel good enough to continue walking around, but we ended up just touring the Guagua on horseback instead.

Left to Right - Emily, Alicia, me, Carol, and Jules.  Don't you love Emily's attire?  Photo courtesy of Emily Stout.

Yee haw.  Photo courtesy of Emily Stout.
Singing "the hills are alive" Julie Andrews style!  Photo courtesy of Emily Stout.

Me enjoying the view at the top - Photo courtesy of Migs
Top Left to bottom right - Me, Emily, Alicia, and Carol - Photo courtesy of Emily Stout.

The Guagua was beautiful and made for a fun filled afternoon.  However, once I got a look at the second and tallest peak of Pichincha, Rucu ("old one" in Quechua), I knew I had to climb it. My friends Alicia and Michael (aka Migs) got the same itch, so we decided to plan our attack.  Since we hadn't fully acclimated to the altitude yet, we had to wait another week or so before our big climb.

Climbing Rucu Pichincha is no small feat.  On the day we returned to Pichincha, we came prepared:  we planned for at least 6 hours of hiking/climbing, packed extra food and water, maps, coca candy for the altitude, and brought layers of clothing to protect against the frigid and extreme climate changes we would surely encounter.  The weather wasn't very clear that day, but we set out energetically to conquer the peak anyway.  The trail winds up and down rocky hills and ridges, at times disappearing into thick grasses or mud puddles.  We passed a few other hiking groups on their return trip, but none of them had attempted the peak climb.  It made me a little nervous that we were the only ones going so far along the trail, but if either of my hiking companions felt the same way, they sure did a good job of hiding it.  We had a great time talking about Quito, our new families, our school, and how much we wanted McDonald's cheeseburgers.  

After about 3 tedious hours of slow incline, we finally hit the base of the peak and decided to stop for lunch.  Munching on our sandwiches, we nervously laughed and talked through the next portion of our climb.  Looking at what lay ahead of us, we considered turning back.  Despite my doubts, our close proximity to our destination renewed my determination.  I stood up and brushed the sandwich crumbs off my pants and turned to Alicia and Migs.
"We've gone this far, we might as well just keep right on going!" I said in my best Forrest Gump voice.
Our lunch spot...and the calm before the storm.

The hike up, photo courtesy of Migs

And that was that.  We picked up our bags and set out for the last leg of our climb, and looked up at way lay ahead of us. The next half hour, the terrain would incline sharply and and the ground would become more treacherous.  We could barely make out the summit through the thick clouds that were forming, but it didn't seem too far off.
Photo courtesy of Migs
 The climb was grueling.  The solid ground transformed into sand and loose rock beneath our feet.  Climbing the sand was tiring and difficult...we had to crawl on our hands and feet to get beyond it places where the sand became too deep to walk through.  Beyond the sand, we gingerly climbed piles of jagged, black rock.  We couldn't climb in front of each other because of the loose rocks, and continued on side by side.  To make matters worse, a storm was forming around us.  Snowflakes began to fall, and thunder rumbled all around.  We stopped on a large, stable slab of rock, tired and out of breath.  
"I dont think we can do this, this storm is getting worse.  I'm exhausted!" Migs yelled between heavy breaths.
It was true, we were all exhausted.  But we could see the peak, only 50 feet away!  No matter how tired we were, we couldn't come as far as we had only to turn back in our final momentsWe caught our breath and made one final push forwardFinally, we reached the top of Rucu Pichincha!  We entusiastically celebrated our conquest with loud woops all around and took lots of photos.  We were exhilarated by our success, barely noticing the worsening conditions around us.  We never stopped to think that the thunder we were hearing meant there was a lot of electricity in the atmosphere...and we were pretty much standing in atmosphere.
Exito!  Photo courtesy of Migs

Photo courtesy of Migs

Photo courtesy of Migs

While taking a celebratory video to show everyone back at our school where we had been, we suddenly froze.  Our hairs felt like they were standing on end under our hoods.  Moments later, all three of us jumped at the same time as electricity shocked through our bodies.  A second later, a bright flash of lightning lit up the sky.  It didn't hurt, but that was our cue that it was time to get out of there.  You can see the video Migs took below!  At the last moment, Migs almost drops his camera in surprise from being 'mildly' electrocuted.  

We got off that peak as fast as we could, making the trek back to the Guagua in half the time it took us to trek in.  The snow turned to heavy rain as we descended on the trail.  By the time we reached the Teleférico, we were soaked to the bone and covered in mud.  Two cabs drivers denied us rides at the base because of how awful we looked!  We eventually found a cab willing to deal with our mess and went home to our families.  As I walked in the gate to my family's house, my host mama shrieked and told me to stay in the garage until she could gather my mud-soaked clothes.  Migs, Alicia and I met up the next day at school very sore, but we all agreed it was worth it!

Come on, how many people can say they have been electrocuted on top of a volcano?

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